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Study: Choline Can Boost Baby's Brain Health—If You're Getting Enough

Here's why you need to get more of this nutrient into your pregnancy diet.
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By Anisa Arsenault, Associate Editor
Updated January 5, 2022
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Image: Iryna Inshyna | Shutterstock

Eggs, almonds, salmon—all pregnancy foods you probably already knew can give baby’s brain development a boost. But one study is zeroing in on a specific nutrient essential to baby brain health that 90 percent of pregnant women are getting enough of: choline.

Found in egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts and cruciferous vegetables (think broccoli and cauliflower), choline has long been known to aid in fetal brain development and prevent neural tube defects. But researchers from Cornell University wanted to see how choline consumption during pregnancy affected attention and memory in children.

Their study looked at 26 pregnant women in their third trimester who consumed a specific amount of choline per day. Of these women, 13 consumed 480 mg of choline per day (which is slightly higher than the recommended amount of 450 mg/day) and 13 consumed a total of 930 mg of choline per day.

Initially, the researchers looked at how choline consumption during pregnancy affected baby’s cognitive abilities throughout the first year of life. In this previous study, researchers evaluated how fast the babies could process information and how accurate their visuospatial memory was at 4, 7, 10 and 13 months. To do this, they administered a test known to correlate with childhood IQ: timing how long each infant took to look toward an image on the periphery of a computer screen.

They found that babies whose mothers had nearly twice the daily recommended amount of choline each day during their third trimesters processed information significantly faster. (However, both sets of babies showed cognitive benefits—any choline is better than no choline!)

For their new study, the researchers followed up seven years later and tested the offspring of the women again. They found that kids whose moms consumed 480 mg of choline per day had less sustained attention and accuracy from the beginning to end of a task than kids whose moms consumed 930 mg of choline per day.

The researchers believe both studies prove that the recommended amount of choline for pregnancy needs to be higher than it currently is for fetal brain development. “Current recommendations for pregnant women were set in 1998 and are based on the amount of choline needed to prevent liver dysfunction in men, not on the more relevant outcome of offspring neurocognitive development,” Richard Canfield, the study’s co-senior author and a senior research associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS), said in a press release. “By showing that the beneficial effects of prenatal supplementation endure into childhood, these findings illustrate a role for prenatal choline in programming the course of child cognitive development.”

While this is the first study to follow kids into their school age, the findings are parallel to previous studies that have been conducted using rodents. Previous research has shown that increased choline in pregnancy diets leads to improved attention and memory in the offspring throughout their lives. Plus, it may even protect the fetus from the adverse effects of prenatal stress, fetal alcohol exposure and more.

“Our findings suggest population-wide benefits of adding choline to a standard prenatal vitamin regimen,” Barbara Strupp, professor in the DNS and Department of Psychology, as well as a co-senior author of the study, said. “By demonstrating that maternal choline supplementation in humans produces offspring attentional benefits that are similar to those seen in animals, our findings suggest that the full range of cognitive and neuroprotective benefits demonstrated in rodents may also be seen in humans.”

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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